There are already parts of aging that I anticipate with considerable dread: limited mobility is one. But this article, about elders with dementia finding comfort in a life-like robot baby seal named Paro, forces my thinking into a whole new and far less familiar terrain. I simply don’t know what to make of the fact that I one day could rely for comfort on a fake baby seal.
“Paro responds to touch and sound, and makes cooing noises modeled after those of real baby harp seals. If you stroke Paro and talk softly to it, it will gurgle and turn toward you. If you speak to it sharply, it will immediately stop whatever it’s doing and try something else in an effort to please you. The choice of animal is deliberate: A robot dog might evoke a frightening childhood memory of a snarl or a bite, but who’s ever had a bad run-in with a baby seal?”
One of the issues raised in the article — that people suffering from dementia may not be able to distinguish Paro from an actual living creature — seems beside the point to me. If comfort from Paro can replace sedative medications, that seems all to the good. I also see that with increasing numbers of aging citizens, countries around the world are finding it challenging to supply and pay for sufficient well-trained and compassionate caregivers. Paro never gets fed up and shows frustration with the elderly person who asks the same question for the umpteenth time. Paro is fairly expensive up front, $6000, but then maintenance costs are a fraction of what you’d have to pay a human caregiver. And Paro won’t poop on the floor, like a real live therapy dog might. On the other hand, Paro can’t change an adult diaper or feed you dinner either. I suppose that might be coming.
But outsourcing the solution to loneliness and the need for physical care to robotic caregivers, either in animal or human form, feels weird. It just does.